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Senate report details security risk posed by 2016 Trump campaign’s Russia contacts

By Greg MillerKaroun Demirjian and Ellen Nakashima

August 18, 2020 at 8:56 p.m. EDT

An exhaustive investigation led by members of President Trump’s own political party portrays his 2016 campaign as posing counterintelligence risks through its myriad contacts with Russia, eager to exploit assistance from the Kremlin and seemingly determined to conceal the full extent of its conduct from a multiyear Senate probe.

The long-awaited report from the Senate Intelligence Committee contains dozens of new findings that appear to show more direct links between Trump associates and Russian intelligence, and it pierces the president’s long-standing attempts to dismiss the Kremlin’s intervention on his behalf as a hoax.

Like the Mueller report before it, the nearly 1,000-page Senate document does not explicitly accuse the Trump campaign of direct collusion with Russian intelligence. But the Senate report carries particular weight because it is the first major investigation of Russian interference in 2016 to be conducted by a Republican-controlled committee and endorsed by both Republicans and Democrats.

The report’s language is often stark, describing Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s receptivity to Russian outreach as a “grave counterintelligence threat” that made the campaign susceptible to “malign Russian influence.”

Read the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election

At one point, the document concludes that members of Trump’s transition team probably fell prey to Russian manipulation that they were too callow to recognize. Kremlin operatives “were capable of exploiting the transition team’s shortcomings,” the report says. “Based on the available information, it is possible — and even likely — that they did so.”

Other sections of the report may furnish Trump supporters new material to use in attacking the FBI and one of its informants. The probe is particularly critical of the credibility and sourcing of a “dossier” assembled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele as part of an opposition research effort funded by Democrats.

But Trump will have difficulty taking exculpatory advantage of a report that is replete with damning details about his conduct and that of his associates.

The Senate probe is the first to flatly declare that a longtime partner of Manafort was, in fact, a Russian intelligence officer. The report also for the first time cites evidence that that alleged operative, Konstantin Kilimnik, may have been directly involved in the Russian plot to break into a Democratic Party computer network and provide plundered files to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

The committee determined that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally directed the hack-and-leak campaign.

Who is Konstantin Kilimnik and why does his name appear nearly 800 times in Senate report?

In one of its most startling passages, the report concludes that one of Trump’s core claims of innocence cannot be credited. In written testimony to the team of federal prosecutors led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Trump insisted that he could not recall ever discussing the WikiLeaks dumps with political adviser Roger Stone or any other associate.

“Despite Trump’s recollection,” the Senate report said, “the committee assesses that Trump did, in fact, speak with Stone about WikiLeaks and with members of his campaign about Stone’s access to WikiLeaks on multiple occasions.”

The document describes Trump and associates of his campaign as often incapable of candor. It offers new proof that former national security adviser Michael Flynn lied about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, raises troubling questions about Manafort’s decision to squander a plea agreement with prosecutors by lying to Mueller’s team, and accuses Blackwater founder Erik Prince of “deceptive” accounts of his meetings with a Russian oligarch in the Seychelles weeks before Trump was sworn into office.

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit last year in Osaka, Japan.
President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit last year in Osaka, Japan. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The overall portrait that emerges from the report’s 966 pages is of repeated encounters between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, but no formal collusion. The two sides shared the same objective — the defeat of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — and basked in one another’s admiration. But more because of ineptitude than any principled commitment to the sanctity of American democracy, the partnership was never consummated, the committee determined.

The report is the last of five installments in the Senate probe that confirm the broad outlines presented in 2017 by U.S. intelligence agencies: that Russia waged a massive campaign of cyber-intrusions and social media disinformation at first to disrupt the 2016 election, then to try to sway its outcome.

Russia is trying to ‘denigrate’ Biden while China prefers ‘unpredictable’ Trump not be reelected, senior U.S. intelligence official says

The document would read more like a harrowing historical account were it not for mounting evidence that many of the same forces of disruption are lining up for the 2020 election. The top U.S. counterintelligence official recently warned that Russia is again waging a far-reaching interference campaign and favors Trump in the upcoming election.

The United States has taken some steps to thwart Moscow’s plans, including a reported effort by the State Department to flood Russian citizens’ cellphones with offers of reward money for information on the Kremlin’s operations.

But Trump continues to amplify many of Russia’s divisive messages. Attorney General William P. Barr has intervened in criminal cases against Trump allies Stone and Flynn. And Trump supporters on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), have reportedly accepted material from Russian-tied sources to discredit former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s opponent in November. Subtitle Settings Font Font Size Font Edge Font Color Background The spectacular rise and fall of Paul Manafort. Before he joined the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort made a name for himself in the D.C. lobbying world, but his past caught up with him. (Dalton Bennett, Jon Gerberg, Jesse Mesner-Hage/The Washington Post)

A Russian lawyer who met with Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner at Trump Tower before the 2016 election also had more “significant connections” to the Kremlin than has been previously reported, the Senate probe concludes.

The “dirt” that Natalia Veselnitskaya offered on Clinton was “part of a broader influence operation targeting the United States that was coordinated, at least in part, with elements of the Russian government,” the report states.

The Senate probe was conducted in an unusually bipartisan fashion given the polarized atmosphere in Congress. For most of the past three years it was led by Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), though Burr stepped down earlier this year amid investigations of his stock sales at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.

There were partisan differences, however, in how to interpret the outcome of the probe, which includes some findings likely to be seized upon by Trump supporters.

The panel concluded that the FBI’s handling of Russian threats to the election was “flawed,” for example, and that the bureau gave “unjustified credence” to allegations about Trump’s Russia ties made in the dossier compiled by Steele, “based on an incomplete understanding of Steele’s past reporting record.”

The committee said it did not rely in any way on Steele’s memos, but it included references to separate sources related to one of his dossier’s most explosive allegations. The report cited “testimony and other information provided by several witnesses” referring to the possible existence of compromising tapes and witness accounts of Trump’s conduct with women during past visits to Moscow.

Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), left, and Richard Burr (R-N.C.). (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The panel agreed that the FBI overestimated Steele’s reliability and that Manafort and other aides exposed the campaign to undue Russian influence. But its leaders were divided along party lines in how they interpreted other findings, and several members — including the committee’s acting chairman, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — endorsed dissenting conclusions about Trump’s culpability.

“After more than three years of investigation by this Committee, we can now say with no doubt, there was no collusion,” a group of six panel Republicans, including Rubio, wrote in a statement that instead accused the Democratic Party of coordinating with foreign actors to produce Steele’s dossier.

The FBI’s conduct remains under investigation by Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, who was tapped by Barr to explore the origins of the Russia probe.

A former FBI lawyer is expected to plead guilty Wednesday to falsifying a document in the Russia case. Durham is also likely to interview former CIA director John Brennan on Friday, according to a person familiar with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Five Democratic senators ­— including Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), the party’s 2020 vice-presidential nominee — asserted that the report “unambiguously shows that members of the Trump Campaign cooperated with Russian efforts to get Trump elected.” Referring specifically to their findings on Manafort, the Democrats wrote, “This is what collusion looks like.”

Warner, the ranking Democrat on the panel, did not sign onto the Democrats’ dissent but noted “a breathtaking level of contacts between Trump officials and Russian government operatives that is a very real counterintelligence threat to our elections.”

Senate panel told Justice Dept. of suspicions over Trump family members’ Russia testimony

Burr and Warner launched the probe before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. Since then, Mueller released a 448-page report on Russian interference, and Trump was impeached and acquitted after Democrats accused him of coercing Ukrainian leaders to interfere in the 2020 election. The Senate probe involved interviews with more than 200 witnesses and gained access to classified materials relating to Russian disinformation efforts.

And although it covered much of the same turf as Mueller’s investigation, the committee’s work was different in nature. Mueller ran a criminal probe; the Senate committee conducted an intelligence investigation — a distinction that helps explain some of the nuanced differences between their conclusions.

Mueller eventually secured the convictions or indictments of six Trump aides. The Justice Department later sought to withdraw charges against one, Flynn, and Trump commuted the sentence of a second, Stone.

The special counsel also indicted 26 Russians, charging 12 military officers with involvement in the hacks and 13 Russians with manipulating social media to influence U.S. opinion. Kilimnik was charged with obstruction of justice.

The Intelligence Committee’s report notes that it had made referrals to the Justice Department “for potential criminal activity” suspected during the course of its investigation. As The Washington Post reported late last week, Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort were among those flagged to federal prosecutors because the committee believed that their testimony was contradicted by information unearthed by Mueller.

It is unclear whether the Justice Department took action on the referrals.

Tom Hamburger, Shane Harris, Rosalind S. Helderman and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

Bill Fuller

Bill Fuller

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